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VEC vote draws different reactions

Vermont Electric Cooperative is learning how to be a good democratic non-profit utility during this controversial vote on the proposed power line upgrade that would benefit the Lowell wind project.

So says VEC Chief Executive Officer David Hallquist.

At the same time, the members of this rural utility are learning what it’s like to belong to a co-op – founded to bring electricity to rural Vermonters when private utilities would not.

“One meter, one vote.” That’s how VEC describes the members.

And a member can be anyone or any organization buying electricity from the co-op – the couple renting a house in Newport City, the bill-paying head of household in Lowell, the business owner in Derby or the village of Derby Line.

For private customer-members, it’s a private vote. But for municipalities, it’s a public decision that’s being handled in some decidedly different ways.

Some municipalities are voting, some aren’t.

And some never have. Some municipal leaders, such as Derby Board of Selectmen Chairman Brian Smith or Newport City Mayor Paul Monette, were caught by surprise when asked this week how they voted.

Smith and Monette said the Derby Board of Selectmen and the Newport City Council did not address the ballot at their Monday meetings.

Smith said the Derby board probably wouldn’t at this point – the next meeting is July 25, too late to mail in the ballot.

The Derby board has not voted in the past on VEC mail-in elections, Town Clerk Nicole Daigle said.

For some communities, being part of a co-operative utility is relatively new. Newport City, and neighboring communities in parts of Orleans County, never had a vote under the company that previously provided electricity, Citizens Utility.

VEC bought Citizens, and now a vote comes with the change – a vote that many town leaders such as in Newport City had never had to deal with before.

Some municipal boards have or will vote. Some won’t, and some leave it up to the clerks.

VEC has mailed ballots for a special election to its 34,000 members – towns, businesses, nonprofits and homes.

On the ballot is a request for approval of a power line upgrade to improve reliability for VEC in the Lowell-Jay area that would also transport electricity created by the Lowell wind project. Green Mountain Power, which has a certificate of public good to erect 21 wind turbines on the mountain ridge line, would pay a significant share of the construction and maintenance costs of the line.

However, voters must approve the upgrade first.

Also in the mailing are two other non-controversial ballots: to ratify the Hydro-Quebec contract; and to approve of a mechanism to pay dividends to members in good times.

Derby Line trustees have already voted. The three trustees voted unanimously Monday evening in favor of the upgrade without any discussion – the same night that the village met with developers of two large wind turbines proposed for a hill east of the village.

In Coventry, Selectmen Brad Maxwell and Richard Lussier decided to leave the ballot question about the upgrade up to board Chairman Michael Marcotte, Town Clerk Cynthia Diaz said Thursday.

Marcotte wasn’t at the meeting. However, his opinion is well known: he is one of seven Orleans County legislators who have lobbied against the power line upgrade.

Diaz received the ballot envelope in the mail last week.

“I got it as town clerk. I just figured it was a select board matter. They are the people who sign the warrants” for the electricity bill, she said.

In Lowell, selectmen will vote Tuesday on the ballot question – and Town Clerk Nanette Bonneau has no doubt that the board will vote for the ballot. The town voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Lowell wind project last year, and she said the board will follow through on the voters’ wishes.

The Lowell board usually does the voting on VEC ballots, she said.

In Westfield, the town on the east of Lowell, selectmen have not voted on the ballot either.

Westfield Selectman Jake Couture said the board had heard a description of the line upgrade from the utilities and that seemed to satisfy local residents. The board took a straw vote of support at that time, but he didn’t know if the board would actually try to meet to vote on the issue in the next week.

In Albany, where the town is a party in the hearings and has fought the Lowell wind project, the board of selectmen meets Tuesday at 7 p.m. The clerk said she assumes the board will vote on the ballot.

In Troy, the board also does the voting, Town Clerk Terri Medley said.

“I received all the ballots,” she said.

She will put them before the board Monday – the usual procedure. What the board will do, she didn’t know.

In Irasburg and Morgan, like other towns, the board of selectmen usually does the voting, if at all, the clerks said.

However, in Morgan the board doesn’t meet again until July 25, too late to put the ballot in the mail. The ballot can be hand-delivered to the Johnson VEC headquarters if anyone wants to, in time for the 6 p.m. special meeting. The ballot box closes at 6:30 p.m.

Like other towns, the Irasburg Board of Selectmen has seldom voted on any VEC ballots.

The same goes for Newport Town, where Clerk Denise Daigle says the board won’t vote on the ballot and usually does not. And in Jay, Clerk Tara Morse said the board doesn’t usually vote on VEC matters, but she didn’t know what selectmen would decide to do.

In Glover, Clerk Donna Sweeney said the board did not vote on the ballot questions, and it never has before.

However, it did cast a ballot for a candidate for the vacant seat for District 3 on the VEC board of directors, she said. Only members in the district would have received that particular ballot question.

The Glover board voted for Michael Ladd of Glover out of seven candidates.

“They strongly think he will do a wonderful job and that’s why we are supporting him,” Sweeney said.

The Canaan and Grand Isle boards of selectmen also didn’t vote on the upgrade or other ballot questions, those town clerks said.

However, the Canaan board also doesn’t meet until July 25, and doesn’t usually vote on VEC matters anyway.

In Jericho, part of the town is in the VEC service area, and part is not. The town office is served by Central Vermont Public Service, and therefore wouldn’t get a ballot. However, the clerk said that the town garage in Jericho is in the VEC territory, so the town pays a bill to VEC, but she didn’t remember getting a ballot.

In Jericho and Canaan, the line upgrade just isn’t very controversial, the clerks said.

However, it could have been in Eden, the town west of the Lowell ridge line in Lamoille County, but selectmen opted not to vote, the clerk says – the normal practice for VEC ballots.

In some towns, the tradition is that the clerk handles the voting, if anyone does.

In Holland, Clerk Diane Judd has already voted “yes” on all three ballot questions.

“That’s the practice here,” she said.

In Charleston, Clerk Jeannine Bennett has already cast the ballots for her town, as usual. She declined to say how she voted.